A place to pause: Benches on M Trail commemorate UM professors with a view

One of several commemorative benches stand watch over the University of Montana campus and city of Missoula from the M Trail. The project was launched by Professor Steven Gaskill after the death of fellow UM Professor Tom Whiddon. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

High above Missoula on a recent summer day, a team of workers climbed the switchbacks toward the city’s iconic M with a project in mind.

There on the second cutback, with the valley spreading below, Tracy Berg and her sisters had a plan. They had commissioned a memorial bench to remember their parents, Lyle and Ellie Berg, who passed in 2015 and 2017, respectively.

“We thought this would be a wonderful tribute to both of them,” said Berg. “The bench has a marvelous view of the (football) stadium, which I know my dad in particular would appreciate.”

The commemorative bench is now one of several perched along the M Trail, giving hikers reason to pause as they make their way up the mountain. The project was spearheaded by Dr. Steven Gaskill, a professor from the Department of Health and Human Performance at the University of Montana.

An avid outdoorsman, Gaskill launched the program roughly 10 years ago to remember his colleagues and to make physical activity more accessible for all.

“It was the year (professor) Tom Whiddon died, which might have been 2012 or 2013,” said Gaskill. “But my main focus in the Missoula community is improving access for physical activity and getting kids physically active and helping people with their health.”

The growing downtown district looms larger each year from the M above the University of Montana campus. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

It’s a fitting cause for members of the university’s Department of Health and Human Performance, where Gaskill has worked for 16 years. Whiddon also worked in the program, as did those commemorated on the second and third bench installed with the M Trail effort.

They include Adrianne Corti, who ran the university’s activities programs with HHP, and Shamus McCarthy, a graduate of the program who had been accepted to medical school but later passed away from brain cancer.

“When we were talking about what we could do to put a memorial for Tom Whiddon, I threw out the idea of a bench on the M Trail, and that’s sort of how it started,” said Gaskill. “They seem to be really well used. One of the last home football games, every bench had people sitting on it with binoculars watching the game.”

Two additional commemorative benches were added this summer, including that remembering Ellie and Lyle Berg, who served as director of educational research at UM. A third bench is scheduled to commemorate John Wicks, a longtime professor in the School of Business.

“There should now be enough funds available to order the bench for a spring installation,” said Robert McCue, who’s heading up the Wicks bench. “We would like to do an official dedication of the bench at homecoming next fall. We’ll have plenty of John’s former students there who helped make the bench possible.”

Plans are in the works to restore the M Trail, one of the city’s most iconic hikes. The commemorative benches have helped contribute to the cause, which will be unveiled soon. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

To install the bench and remember their parents, Berg and her family donated $1,200 to the UM Foundation, and made a $250 contribution to the Friends of the M Trail.

Such contributions will go toward the trail’s mounting maintenance needs. As one of the most popular trails in Missoula, it gets more than 60,000 users annually, and the trail and portions of its infrastructure are in need of repair.

“A long time ago, more than 10 years ago, I had some interns count,” said Marilyn Marler. “In good weather, it was 1,000 people a day on good summer days. They start at dawn in the summer, and it’s a steady trickle all day. It gets a lot of use.”

Marler said the impacts have accumulated over time, and plans are in the works to tackle upgrades. The trail wouldn’t meet today’s design standards, and the switchback would have been placed “more creatively,” Marler said.

While the trail won’t likely change in contour, other portions of the M Trail will see attention, with details expected soon. It will include preservation and restoration of the trail, along with work to stabilize the M itself.

“I just had a crew up there last month, and Montana Conservation Corps was up last month for several days and did some work on the first stretch,” Marler said. “We try to do a little every fall and every spring.”